Friday, February 21, 2014

Feisty Flycatchers,,,,,, "Satins"

  The rasping call of the Satin Flycatcher, resonating through woodland and forest is, for me, one of  the most anticipated birding events of every spring. "Satins" are one of the last of the summer migrants to arrive in Tasmania and among the first to leave. Being almost exclusively insect eaters and given the unpredictability of our summers, especially so this year, that's probably a wise move.            
     Although they can be very vocal and their calls may be heard a kilometre or more away on a still day, they can be surprisingly difficult to locate. Largely occupying the tree canopy and being only around 170mm in length doesn't help and males often call and move and call and move, making it a somewhat fraught business. They are of course proclaiming their territory, and several pairs may occupy adjacent areas, and occasionally disputes break out between males. Mostly this is just a verbal joust, with crest raising and the characteristic tail vibrating and occasionally  followed by chasing. So I feel fortunate to occasionally manage a close encounter with these birds and the accompanying images are the result of one of these occasions.
         I stood at the top of a small shallow valley, a favourite spot of mine, giving views into the canopy of the small peppermints. Almost immediately two male Satin Flycatchers shot past, one either side of me no more than a few centimetres away. One returned quickly (in triumph?) and perched just behind and above me. I didn't need to turn and confirm the ID, the vibrating tail apparent in the cast shadow said it all.
         For the next 40 minutes or so, I watched the antics of one, sometimes two, family groups of "satins" as they went about the business of catching insects to feed their offspring. The most surprising events were their fearless defence of the young. I watched as Grey Shrike-thrush and Yellow-throated Honeyeaters were seen off, both of these species themselves, quite pugnacious. Others seen off included Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, a Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Black-headed Honeyeaters and Dusky Robins. The male "satin" (below) with an evil look in his eye, (if only looks could kill!) ambushed a shrike-thrush, physically attacking it and chasing it high into the top of a dead gum over 100 metres away.
      But this pales compared to the combined efforts by two males, who took on an juvenile Grey Currawong. Unseen by the "satins", an adult and juvenile currawong had landed in the Native Cherry alongside me and all was well until the juvenile flew down to pick up a "cherry". It was instantly spotted and a spirited attack by two males ensued, which included landing on the unfortunate bird and pecking it vigorously. The young currawong seemed nonplussed by the event and just allowed the attack to continue before beating a retreat pursued by the males. The adult currawong wisely stayed concealed in the dense foliage of the cherry and flew off when it appeared safe to do so!
        In between seeing off the interlopers, I watched both males and females catching insects, mostly in mid-air, but occasionally from the woodland floor. The male pictured above with an insect (love to know what insect) at one point dropped it, and the flycatcher showed great agility in recapturing it before it had fallen a metre. Only one bird managed to avoid being seen off, a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo. The flycatcher had passed within a metre or so of it several times without event. Although the cuckoo was only about 20 metres away and straight in front of me, I had failed to notice it until it briefly moved to pluck a hairy caterpillar from a nearby leaf. Perhaps its' cryptic colouring kept it 'safe', or perhaps the flycatcher didn't see it as a threat.
         Watching from close quarters these highly animated flycatchers going about their business was an experience up there with the best. What a privilege! 
         On and off during the last few months I have followed the several pairs that occupy Pilcher's Hill Reserve at Gielston Bay on Hobart's Eastern Shore. My visits have made me painfully aware just how little I know about these flycatchers, and as always, every piece of information gathered leads to even more questions. I had, for example never seen a juvenile (image at right) and didn't realise how rapidly they moult through the various plumage states (I'm still not sure I fully understand this). Do some males arrive in immature plumage--basically the same as female plumage (top left)--and change during the summer to full male state? I photographed two males that were still showing remnants of immature plumage in early January.
       Satin Flycatchers are found widely in the taller, often wetter, eucalypt forests and my impression is that they have increased in numbers over the past several years. My reason for thinking this is that, at least in the south-east, they now occupy areas not previously used, such as more open and drier woodland with only modestly tall trees. Such impressions can be misleading as I've noted this year that I've seen many more Flame Robins and an apparent "crash" in Scarlet Robin numbers. Swings and roundabouts? Time will tell.
    Around the Hobart area "Satins" may be found (or at least heard!) in most of the reserves, such as the Waterworks Reserve, lower areas of Mtn. Wellington Park, Risdon Brook Park and the Meehan Range and other areas of similar habitat.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


       Enjoy the Christmas and New Year holiday, but please stay safe.

                  The image is of a male Superb Fairy-wren, a common species of the east and south-east of Australia, including Tasmania. It was recently voted Birdlife Australia's favourite bird, with the Australian Magpie coming in a close second.
                   A big thank you to the regular and occasional visitors and especially to those who take the time to comment. A recurring health issue has rather curtailed my birding activities of late, so I must apologise for the paucity of articles.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Tale of Two "Swallows" (b) Dusky Woodswallow

        The second encounter took place a couple of weeks later and less than a kilometre from the Welcome Swallow photo opp. mentioned below. I have taken a little, some might say a large, liberty with suggesting they are both "swallows", because they are not related. They are both summer migrants to Tasmania. As might be suggested by the bill colour, woodswallows are more closely related to Butcherbirds amd Magpies. They are a  little longer than Welcome Swallows, but weigh in at around 35 gram, over 3 times heavier, a solid, often pugnacious, bird. They are usually found in open woodland and often nest in small colonies of a few pairs. Their nests consist of twigs and grass, often placed in the fork of a gum and, in my experience, are among the easiest nests to find.
         Like swallows, they feed on flying insects, making forays from chosen vantage points. They will also forage for food on the ground among the leaf litter, particularly on cool mornings. On warm summer days they can be seen soaring often to great heights chasing flying insects, sometimes in flocks numbering over a hundred. They seem somewhat drab birds, but in the hand, the subtle smokey pink brown body and dark blue grey wings are particularly beautiful--my shots, taken on a dull, overcast day, do not do them justice.
          I was returning from a brief visit to Goat Bluff, on a showery, windy day that had few bright spots save for a fleeting, but exhilarating view of a Peregrine Falcon as it "rushed" by. As I turned off the highway, I noticed a bird in the middle of the road which I couldn't initially ID, and pulled off to the side to use my binoculars on it. It turned out to be a Dusky Woodswallow, but what was it doing in the middle of the road?
               In these situations I invariably take a photograph or two and identify the prey on my PC later, which I did here. My first thoughts were that it had a chrysalis that it was trying to 'unravel'. It was hammering away at whatever it was, raising itself  to its' full height and 'crashing' down forcibly onto the prey. A passing car caused it to fly off  briefly, returning to the road some distance away. Later, on the PC, I could see that the prey was a moderate size beetle, somewhere around the size of a Dung Beetle. Obviously the road made a suitable 'anvil' to hammer the beetle against.
           Woodswallows are in my experience surprisingly resourceful. On a warm late summer day, I stopped to watch a flock of Yellow-rumped Thornbills feeding on the edge of the road. I couldn't make out what they were feeding on, but assumed it was probably seeds. While standing there, I noted, sitting on the power lines some 100 metres or more away, several Dusky Woodswallows. My thoughts drifted back to the Yellowrumps as I tried to work out if I could get close enough to photograph them, but a passing car put paid to that and they flew off. However looking down the road I could see the woodswallows were now flying at speed back and forth along the road, obviously catching some unseen prey. I moved closer. Another passing car and a repeat of the previous excursion from the power line by the woodswallows. Then the penny dropped! The woodswallows were waiting for the passing cars to stir up clouds of very small 'midges' from the roadside and they were taking full toll of them as they were briefly disturbed. I sat and watched for some time, mesmerised by their actions. As I said, surprisingly resourceful.

A Tale of Two "Swallows": (a) Welcome Swallow

       Before spring becomes just a distant memory, I'll relate a couple of encounters with two of our migrant birds. The first is an event that I've often watched, usually from afar, and in recent times made attempts at photographing them, which requires a close approach. The species in the first attempt was the Welcome Swallow, a common enough species in Tasmania during the warmer months, with a few managing to eke out an existence during our winters. I say "eke" out, because these swallows feed almost exclusively on insects, usually caught in flight, and there are precious few insects about in the colder months.
         The venue was the car park of the popular scenic spot, at Goat Bluff, near South Arm. I had intended to wander through the nearby heath, but the car park was near full with the cars of surfers, the western side of the bluff being a popular surfing spot under certain conditions. I was about to drive back out when I spotted swallows coming to a muddy puddle close to the cars and stopped to investigate. I correctly guessed they were collecting material for nest building--they nest in crevices on the nearby cliffs, a far cry from their usual choice of buildings and road culverts.
          They were seemingly oblivious of the comings and goings of cars, the slamming of doors, the loud music and the banter of the surfers as they donned their wetsuits. It seemed a possible photo opp..
           As I mentioned earlier, I had photographed them here before, but the results were far from satisfying. These are birds with very short legs not 'designed' for walking and from my previous attempts a low angle was the "go". I sat down beside one of the large boulders dividing the car park into sections, probably no more than 6 or 7 metres from the small puddle that they were using and waited. At first I thought I may be too close and was about to back off when the first swallows returned. They flew over me, twittering, and after a few flybys decided I was non threatening and alighted at the far end of the puddle and gathered material. I'm guessing that their drive to breed and the opportunity of gathering nesting material from a source rapidly drying up (the sole puddle in the car park) is a strong motivation.
            I sat there for perhaps 20 minutes, punctuated by their visits and the frequent arrival and departure of numerous vehicles passing only metres away from me. A 'kindly' surfer came over to tell me that he had recently been bitten by a jack jumper at the very spot I was sitting. That put me in a slight dilemma! The bite from a jack jumper (an ant c.2cm long) is extremely painful. However, I had unwittingly elected to sit in a slight depression that was wet from an overnight shower and this had permeated my clothing through to my skin--I had a very wet backside. I decided that no self respecting jack jumper would come close--I thanked him for his concern.
           Individual pairs arrived together, always doing a flyby first and both birds collected material at the puddle, both dry grass and mud, sometimes one or the other, other times both. For a bird only weighing around 10 grams, they seemed able to fly with a considerable load of mud and grass.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hard Spring?

        Looking back over the last several weeks, my impression is of at best a mixed Spring for birds. In southern Tasmania we've had one of the wettest (and windiest) Springs for several years, but after the extreme dryness of last Summer, I vowed never to complain when it rains. So far I've stuck to my vow. It has made birding something of a challenge and I often wonder what the impact is on our wildlife, and on the birds in particular. No doubt there are winners and losers.
        My impression is, after birding several sites around Hobart, of a decline in bush bird numbers, possibly as result of the last season's dry Summer.  Migrant species such as Grey Fantail, Silvereye and Striated Pardalote certainly seem well down in numbers, and overwintering flocks of Silvereye were few and far between. Most of the returning migrants have arrived, but at the time of writing, I've yet to see or hear a Satin Flycatcher. The Pallid, Fan-tailed and Shining Bronze Cuckoos arrived much earlier than usual, although the actual arrival date of the latter two is somewhat obscured by overwintering birds.
        There are perils for early arriving migrants. I took this rather poor photograph of a rather dejected looking Tree Martin that had almost certainly just arrived (21st August). I was driving round the edge of Pipeclay Lagoon not long after sunrise on a frosty morning. The temperature was around zero Celsius, and with the stiff breeze the apparent temperature was several degrees lower. I caught sight of  a group of birds sitting on a wire fence and as I drove closer, I identified them as mostly White-fronted Chats together with 5 Tree Martins, the first I had seen this season. I took a distant shot of one of the martins, giving what I thought was a fair impression of a penguin! All 'blown up" to retain body temperature, but as they feed almost exclusively on flying insects, they were in for a long wait. On the West Coast, where the colder and wetter days are more frequent, Tree Martins often forage for insects on the ground, something these 5 might have to resort to.
           In late September there was a noticeable movement of Eastern Spinebills through gardens and bushland on Hobart's eastern shore, made more noticeable by their frequent calls, and at least they gave the occasional  "photo opp.".
       October is the main month that many bush birds breed and I've observed many collecting nesting material. Depending on the season ,breeding may extend into December and beyond. But there are a few early starters, and the Tasmanian Scrubwren is one. The scrubwren pictured gave me an unexpected chance of photography (they are great skulkers) and seemed unusually agitated. The "penny dropped" when I noticed a movement in the leaf litter and realised that I was close to their newly fledged youngster. I made a hasty retreat.
         Out of necessity, I've upgraded my computers in the last few months and things have not gone smoothly. Like many things in my life, I procrastinated over an upgrade until it became absolutely imperative! I still can't get my monitor colour calibration as I would like it, probably not so surprisingly as I always buy cheap monitors. So bear with me if the images seem strangely coloured! My Spring at least seems to have been hard

Monday, August 05, 2013

Return of the Striated Pardalotes

       There are definite signs of Spring about, the most obvious at the moment are the numerous Masked Lapwing pairs that have started nesting in various grassland sites. While for many, the arrival of the Welcome Swallows heralds Spring, I look forward to the return of one of our smallest birds, the Striated Pardalote.
       I visited Pipeclay Lagoon this morning, mainly looking at the migrant waders, Red-necked Stint, Double-banded Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, but also looking for signs of our resident Red-capped Plovers and Pied Oystercatchers taking up breeding territories.
         I find that I can make a close approach to these waders in my car as they feed along the tide line, giving excellent views and the occasional photo.opp. Approaching a group of Red-capped Plovers, I wound down the window, and across the marsh came the umistakable "pick-it-up pick-it-up" call of a Striated Pardalote. "They're back!". I always find such events uplifting and something to be savoured, and set off in pursuit..
          I've never seen large flocks of pardalotes, although they often breed in something approaching colonies, but their sudden appearance in substantial numbers suggests they cross Bass Strait on their southern migration from the Australian Mainland, in a cohesive way. None around a few days ago, many today.
          The Striated Pardalotes nest in holes, mostly in trees and banks, but at 'Pipeclay' they nest predominantly in holes in the ground. On arrival, pairs immediately take up a chosen site, having paired off during the preceding months, and their "pick-it-up" calls are announcing to others that this is their territory. Disputes do take place, but it's rarely more than threat displays with open wings, and incessantly calling.
           Although I've taken many photographs of them before, of course I couldn't help taking a few more and quickly found an occupied territory. There were 2 pairs in close proximity that were having a vocal joust and allowed a very close approach. On 3 occasions all too close, as one bird used my hat as a convenient observation point, I being the tallest "structure" around! I could only look at my own shadow with bird atop-- gives you a warm fuzzy feeling.
          Of Tasmania's three pardalote species, the Striated is the only migrant. In some years a good part of the population stays in Tasmania during Winter, but this year they departed early, and I haven't recorded any since March.Welcome back.


Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Early Bird

     Somewhat frustrated by recent weather conditions, I opted for an early morning visit to the Waterworks Reserve at Dynnyrne, a Hobart suburb, which I hoped would be sheltered from the strong south westerlies. In retrospect I think I might have been a tad too early, with frost still present on the downstream face of the dam and few birds in evidence, but I was optimistic.
     I've often been able to photograph birds from the car here, and that's one of the attractions, but I wasn't quite "tuned in" yet and failed to see a roadside Common Bronzewing presenting a photo.opp. or the Grey Currawongs or the Forest Ravens. It was going to be one of those days!
     I did notice the group of around a dozen Hardhead ducks roosting on the water's edge,  and  a few Coot and Hoary-headed Grebes nearby. Normally considered an uncommon species in Tasmania, Hardheads have been seen around Tasmania in unprecedented numbers this year, and have turned up on many bodies of water, including farm dams. I recently noted around 90 on Rostrevor Lagoon near Triabunna and a few dozen on Risdon Brook Dam.
     Spotting a pair of Dusky Robins perched on the top of star pickets around a construction area--I believe it's going to be a handicapped friendly BBQ area--I wandered closer, noting a pair of Scarlet Robins doing the same thing. I had thoughts of photography, but that was cut short by the arrival of the construction crews and the departure of the robins, and me.
      There's an area near the reserve's entrance where I can usually find Dusky Robins and I retreated to this spot. My first impression was one of ominous silence, which didn't bode well, but I persevered. I soon flushed two Forest Ravens, and assumed they were the reason for the lack of bird activity. A Yellow-throated Honeyeater called from high in the canopy, but little else. A few steps more and there was the culprit, a Laughing Kookaburra, the bane of many small birds. Kookaburras were introduced into the Tasmanian Midlands around 1906 and have steadily spread throughout the state and are now commonly seen, even in suburban gardens. Patient birds, they will sit on a suitable perch watching for minutes on end, before pouncing on some unsuspecting prey, including small birds. I took several shots of it perched and moved on, but I'd only taken a few steps before it dropped to the ground. Hidden from my view by a tree, I retraced my steps, interested in what prey it was after. As you can see from the image, it was a worm and a protracted tug of war ensued, and my proximity wasn't going to inhibit its efforts. Worm devoured, it resumed its perch, but seconds later, a second kookaburra passed over my head, and it set off in pursuit.
        Their departure seemed to breathe new life into the bush and Dusky and Scarlet Robins emerged, together with Superb Blue-wrens, while above in the canopy, Strong-billed and Black-headed Honeyeaters  chattered away. The occasional Golden Whistler sidled quietly through the nearby scrub as did Brown Thornbills. I briefly investigated a peculiar rasping call I couldn't identify emanating from high in the eucalypts. That turned out to be two pairs of Wood Duck probably looking for nest holes. I still find it strange to see ducks in trees.
         There were at least 8 Dusky Robins feeding in and around the clearing. Most were feeding deep in the understorey scrub, but a few were making forays from low branches, patiently waiting for some movement in the leaf mulch before pouncing, while others were actively searching the ground and I was able to get a few shots. Most of the prey appeared to be very small insects. I stood quietly beside a large gum and was finally "rewarded" by a close approach of the Dusky Robin pictured. It stood on a fallen branch for a few seconds, before disappearing into the grass and reappearing with a worm. It always strikes me that worms are rather a large prey for robins, but I've seen all 4 of our robins feeding on worms. I suspect they are 'opportunistic' prey rather than sort after, but Dusky Robins also take skinks (small lizards), certainly more 'substantial' than worms.
          My photo.opps were not quite over as, while watching the robins, a pair of Green Rosellas (like the Dusky Robins only found in Tasmania) that had been feeding beneath the nearby acacias, repositioned close by. Actively feeding, probably on seeds, one coming to within a few inches of my foot, before realising its error! But it only flew a few metres and gave me my chance. My only regret was that it was in such deep shade (1/30th of a second exposure!) . Despite an inauspicious start, an excellent morning's birding.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Another Vagrant.... Pink-eared Duck

     About 4 weeks ago, a report of yet more vagrant ducks at Gould's Lagoon at Granton in southern Tasmania, found me scurrying off to hopefully find them. The focus of my search was 5 Pink-eared Ducks. With only a handful of previous records, they are a decided rarity in Tasmania, and I fully expected to find a 'crowd' of birders, or whatever the colloquial term is for a group of birders--I can think of a few! Not a birder in sight. I had the lagoon to myself.
     A walk along the roadside between the two halves of the lagoon failed to locate any of the Pinkears among the numerous Australasian Shoveler, Grey and Chestnut Teal, a few Hardhead and the Freckled Duck mentioned in the previous blog. I didn't venture into the far northern end of the main lagoon, reasoning that they were unlikely to be among the many "ferals" that roost there. On to the hide for a quick.look at the ducks hanging out there, but still no sign. I decided to walk up the hill near the cormorant roost to overlook the lagoon, thinking that would be my final chance. So I was disappointed that there was still no sign of my "quarry" from this vantage point either. I was just about to give up and head back to my vehicle when, steaming from behind the hill, in line astern, the Pink-eared Duck came into view. Satisfaction and relief! They had been among the ferals at the northern end--a lesson for next time.
      They were mid lagoon with bills and heads in the water up to their eyes as they powered past, apparently a normal feeding method. This is a unique looking duck, with its' strangely shaped, oversize bill, large markings around the eye and striped body, quite unlike any other Australian duck. I've seen this duck in Tasmania and on the Mainland, but it had never occurred to me why it was called "pink-eared". It was only after looking at the images on my computer some hours later, that I could see the small "pink ear" just behind the eye. They are also called Zebra Duck for obvious reasons.
        A hundred metres from me they joined a score of Eurasian Coots feeding mid lagoon. The Pinkears  feed on microscopic invertebrates and seed, and often 'spin' while feeding, creating a vortex and thus drawing up food particles from below the surface. They have a bill adapted to filtering out food as they skim the surface of the water. I've seen Australasian Shoveler using a similar method.
         I returned to my earlier spot along the roadside, hoping I would be closer to the "action" and might get a photograph or two--I wasn't and didn't. I waited for 30 minutes or more, hoping for a photo.opp., but just to add to my 'misery', they stopped feeding and sat on the water with heads tucked into their bodies and slept. This small flotilla slowly passed down the lagoon wafted by a light breeze, but gave no chance of worthwhile photography. I did manage to get a distant shot on another visit, shown at top. Reading up about these ducks, they're described as "often quite tame". I don't think these birds have read the same information! The likely explanation is that they have been shot at or at venues where duck shooting has taken place. They are wholly protected in Tasmania.
          Having written frequently about various rare visitors that have graced Gould's Lagoon this year, I should mention that 'Gould's' is also home to many Australasian Shoveler (male lower image), particularly at this time of year. It's possibly the best and easiest place to see these duck anywhere in the state. I recently counted 40 pairs roosting here, some with the ever burgeoning numbers of Freckled Duck--19 at a recent count.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Togetherness.....Banded Stilt

     Driving back from South Arm a couple of weeks back, I noticed a group of predominentlyy white birds a hundred or more metres away which I couldn't readily recognise. I stopped and investigated and found six Banded Stilt feeding in the shallow water of Ralph's Bay. I was already late for an appointment, and reluctantly drove on, persuading myself that trying to photograph these birds on a wide and open beach would be difficult if not impossible anyway--that was to prove false. I made a note to return on a full tide and try when they were roosting.
     An email from Eric Woehler (Chair Birdlife Tasmania) a few days later, telling me that Mark Holdsworth and Sue Robinson had also reported them, "fired" me up, and high tide or not, I'd try my luck.
      There have been several recent reports of sighting around the state, from Moulting Lagoon, Bruny Island, and not forgetting the "few thousand" seen at Logan's Lagoon on Flinders Island. Given the number of sightings/birds involved, you might be wondering why the excitement. Well Banded Stilts are usually described as "rare", "casual" or "vagrant" visitors to Tasmania, and the last time I saw them in Tasmania's south-east, was back in the '80s, and prior to that, my only record was a solitary bird at Lauderdale in 1976/8.
       On a bright, clear morning, with the thermometer hovering in the low single figures, I donned gum boots and wandered off with hope, but little expectation, of getting somewhere close enough to 'meaningfully' photograph this group of stilts feeding avidly in a few inches of water out in the centre of the bay. A few distant "record" shots and a slow approach worked well and I closed to within 15 metres or so. By sitting on my haunches and being very patient, they closed on me until they seemed to suddenly 'notice' me and scurried past to resume feeding a little farther on.
       As you can see in the accompanying photographs, they fed together, walking line abreast, picking up unseen prey from the shallow water. Subsequent viewing of images, showed the prey was almost entirely of small snails (salinator fragilis has been suggested, a very common snail here). They were very jumpy, and even an alarm call of a distant Noisy Miner obviously "worried" them, although they took my presence in their stride. At one point they all stood upright and milled about in all directions, so I turned and walked away from them fearing I was causing them some distress. On turning round they had gone! I soon found them a few hundred metres away, and the 'cause'--a passing Swamp Harrier high overhead. They had formed a flock with Pied Oystercatchers and White-faced Herons, but within a few minutes they were back feeding.
         Banded Stilt, an Australian endemic species, breed in the salt lakes of inland Australia, primarily in Western Australia, but also in northern South Australia. Their chief food there are the numerous brine shrimps and I'm assuming that the habit of feeding in line abreast is a very effective method of maximising their 'catch'. 'Old habits' obviously die hard, as the local snails are not known for their fast getaway!
        It's very hard to determine how many snails the stilts were consuming, but a quick estimate was that they caught (all 6) between 20 and 30 a minute, possibly more, which seems a lot! But I suppose the actual amount of meat, as opposed to shell, is quite small in this snail. After about 30 minutes of photography and just watching them, they stopped, preened and roosted no more than 20 metres away, quite remarkable.
           The first recorded sighting of Banded Stilt in Tasmania was also in Ralph's Bay, back in June 1854, when seven were shot! I assume they were considered "fair game' back then and eaten. Which reminds me, if you're considering photographing them, do it with consideration. If you are causing them to continually change the direction that they are feeding, you are too close. Stay your distance and be patient.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Suburban Cattle Egret

    A recurring back "issue" has limited my birding opportunities, so the following event was gratefully received.
      I was returning from watching granddaughter Caitlyn play soccer, and driving up Gordon's Hill Rd., a suburban 'link' road between Bellerive and Lindisfarne, two of the Hobart's largest Eastern Shore suburbs, when something white and moving on the roadside caught my eye. As I passed I realised it was an egret and  possibly a photo opportunity, but I was in a stream of traffic and stopping was just not on. "I'll take the next right and come back up the hill" and then proceeded to get lost in the labyrinth of back roads and I was beginning to get both frustrated and agitated as time ticked by. Finally, I got back onto to the main road, by now fully expecting that the 'bird had flown'. But I was in luck and stopped briefly to take a few shots from the car, only for the bird to be disturbed by a jogger, fortuitously flying up a side street, I followed and took the accompanying images.
     The 'egret" is in fact a Cattle Egret and as its' name implies, is more at home in the paddocks catching insects disturbed by stock than feeding in suburban front gardens. It had obviously found an untapped food resource, catching insects, probably grasshoppers, as it made its' way from one garden to the next, and there seemed to be no lack of available food. At one point it crouched and stalked an unseen prey, much in the way cats do, and after a swift jab, came up with a hapless skink, dispatching it in a trice.
       Cattle Egrets are mainly winter visitors to Tasmania, and are occasionally seen in flocks numbering in the hundreds, especially so in the North West of the state and on King Island. Here in southern Tasmania the flocks are usually modest in size, often a dozen or less. Although their name implies an association with cattle, they are also found in association with both sheep and horses, or indeed just feeding in grasslands or around lagoons.

     About 30 years ago, it was confidently assumed that they would soon start breeding here in Tasmania, particularly on King Island and along the Northeast coast, but this hasn't yet occurred. If you look at the way this species has colonised Australia in the past 70 years, beginning in the 1940s in the Northern Territory, I think I can confidently predict that it will eventually become a breeding resident of this state.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Back to "Gould's"......Freckled Duck

         A report of 3 Freckled Duck at Gould's Lagoon last weekend by Lachie Clark, had me scurrying off to "Gould's" early on monday morning. The report only said 'possible', but by the description that followed I was in little doubt. They are correctly described as "rare" or "vagrant" in Tasmania, but a few have appeared over the years.  It's many years since I have seen one here, so I arrived, fully expecting that there would be a throng of eager twitchers seeking them out, but I was on my lonesome.
          Lachie had mentioned them being on the eastern lagoon alongside the railway line, but a quick scan didn't produce any sighting. I walked to the northern end and eventually found a single "freckled" following a pair of Chestnut Teal as they fed in the shallow water, but all rather silhouetted against the rising sun. I could now see why the first observer had so much difficulty in identifying them--it had little or no distinguishing marks save for the odd shaped head. Further scanning produced two more "freckled", lurking among the reeds. I took a few shots, but the light was terrible and the birds were distant. I decided to bird the lagoon and return when the sun had risen further.
           On my return I couldn't even find these birds. Oh well, that's the way it goes sometimes. On the 'western' lagoon, I did photograph a few roosting duck with heads tucked into their bodies that appeared to be Hardhead, which have been common here for much of the summer, and headed for home.
           On reviewing my shots of the "Hardhead", I realised they were the Freckled Duck! Red face time! So I decided to return the following day.
            Day 2 and a quick scan of the eastern lagoon revealed no ducks at all, so I walked to the same spot I had seen them the previous day--they were there. I was soon joined by Els Wakefield, also seeking to photograph them. Fortuitously, after watching sleeping "freckled" for 20 minutes or more ('watching drying paint' comes to mind), one set off to fed, hurrah! It gave the opportunity of getting the sort of shot we hoped for, and we set to. When this bird disappeared behind a small reedbed, I glanced down the lagoon, wasn't that another "freckled"! It didn't seem likely, but I set off, trying to keep low behind the sparse vegetation along the roadside--indeed it was, making a total now of four. This bird too, gave a reasonable chance to observe (and photograph) for several minutes, before joining the other duck back at the roost site.
             Reading up about this species of duck, I came across the word used for this ducks feeding method--"suzzling". What a great word! It refers to the action of filter feeding, where the duck sucks particles into the bill tip and expels water near the bill base, as it feeds on seeds and small crustaceans. "Our" birds noticeably 'dribbled' as they fed. During the breeding season, the males have a bright red area between nostrils and forehead on the upper mandible. Looking at some of the images, it appears that at least 2 of the Gould's birds had evidence of dark red on the upper bill, suggesting they are males.
              Freckled Duck are arguably Australia's rarest, endemic duck, with an estimated population of less than 20,000. They breed in the areas around the Lake Eyre Basin, western NSW and south west Queensland, often after flooding. After successful breeding years (Lake Eyre region has been in flood in recent years) they move out of their breeding areas as the interior dries, seeking better conditions. If drought persists they irrupt into coastal areas, and many have been recorded around coastal areas of Mainland states in recent months. Unfortunately, this irruption often coincides with the "shooting season" and many are shot. They are wholly protected throughout Australia.